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The Go-Go’s Charlotte Caffey: The Beat Goes On (Interview)
In 1978, against the backdrop of disco, soft practitioners like Debby Boone and the Captain & Tennille and the growing success of arena rock bands like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Boston and Foreigner, a rough and tumble all female bunch of misfits arrived on the music scene. Imbued with the bratty spirit of punk, the band slowly made their mark on the vibrant L.A. club circuit. With the addition of guitarist Charlotte Caffey, the band shed its punkier roots and embraced a more melodic pop sensibility spearheaded by the new recruit.
Signed to IRS Records, The Go-Go’s’ debut, 1981’s Beauty & the Beat, was the sparkling result, an irresistible collection of addictively catchy, picture-perfect power pop flavored tracks. The public agreed sending the album to the top of the Billboard charts and rewarding the group with two smash hits, the #2 anthem We Got the Beat and Our Lips are Sealed, which could be heard blasting out of car radios coast to coast.
Years later, adding to group’s rock-crit cred, Rolling Stone selected Beauty & the Beat as one of the top 500 albums of all-time.
33 years since its initial release, that album seems as the foundation and leaping off point for all that followed with the studio albums Vacation, Talk Show and 2001’s reunion record, God Bless the Go-Go’s. Now here we are in 2014 and The Go-Go’s are still keeping the beat. As they get ready for a summer U.S. jaunt kicking off on July 1st in Hampton, New Hampshire on a bill that includes Patty Smyth of Scandal, Martha Davis of The Motels, Cutting Crew and Naked Eyes featuring Pete Byrne, Rock Cellar Magazine sat down with Charlotte Caffey, founding member and one of the band’s primary songwriters for a look back at 35 + years of Go-Go’s mania.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Discuss the band’s evolution from punk rock to more mainstream pop/new wave.
Charlotte Caffey: Yes, we were a die hard punk band. Punk rock was a new art form that never existed before. It was a new form of music that was aggressive but there was melody. When I joined the Go-Go’s, they were doing more punk songs; angry at the world or angry at the L.A. Times music writer Robert Hilburn. They had a song called Robert Hilburn, which kind of funny because he was such a champion of ours with our first record. The very first song I brought into the band was How Much More and I was terrified thinking they were gonna hate me. We were playing all these melodies but the way we played them was very raw.
Fast forward to our first record…What we sounded like live was nothing like what our first record sounded like. We were in New York recording our first album and were all excited. We got the first mixes when we were back in L.A. and we were crying because we thought it was the worst thing we ever heard. We were going, “It doesn’t sound like us!” But actually working with our producer Richard Gottehrer, who worked with Blondie and all these other great artists, he pulled out the essence of what the songs were.
We were playing them a little bit of a different way in the studio. Probably at that moment in time if we hadn’t had more of a clean sound on the record we might not have been played on radio. So it wasn’t intentional on our part but as it turned out we learned something. Sometimes you need to collaborate with other people and not just think we know everything. (laughs)
But I don’t know if we ever cleaned our sound up; maybe in the early ‘80s. I did have this Roland synthesizer guitar that I thought I needed and of course I didn’t. But I tried different things. But when you hear the band today we’re so rock. People can’t believe it when they see us. We’re not just a pop band. They’re definitely pop songs but the way we execute them and the way we’ve always pretty much done it is much more aggressive.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you realize that the Go-Go’s had made it and there was no more worrying about having to take a regular job?
Charlotte Caffey: Well, it’s funny I worked at a hospital doing clerical stuff for nine years. This was while I was starting my music career, before the Go- Go’s and during the Go-Go’s. Two months before I quit that job I said to them, “I’m in this band called the Go-Go’s and we’re gonna go to England and we’re gonna try to make it.” And they said, “Oh, you’ll never make it, you’ll be back here.” And I never walked through those doors again. (laughs)
I believed in myself and I believe in those songs. Our manager came to us in a rehearsal and said, “We’re on the charts!” We were jumping up and down and said, “Oh my God, what number?” And they said, “The Billboard top 200, it’s at number 187” and we were like, “What?” and we were all bummed out, It took seven months for Our Lips Are Sealed to become a hit. Michael Plen was our crazy radio promotion guy and radio stations started to add that record because they wanted to get rid of him.
He bugged them every day to play us (laughs); this guy was relentless.
I lived in Laurel Canyon for a brief moment and I was driving down the hill and I heard Our Lips are Sealed come on the radio for the very first time and pulled off to the side of the road. I was screaming at the top of my lungs by myself in the car. It was so exciting. Let’s see, we did our first tour in a van and then Miles Copeland, our record company president said, “I have this idea. We want you to open for the Police.”
And we were like (says dismissively), “We don’t want to open for anybody!” Finally, he convinced us and we went on tour with them and while on that tour our records shot to number one. It surpassed the new Police album Ghost in the Machine, which was a little uncomfortable but they were very gracious about it. I think within that whole time there it became evident that, “Okay, maybe I can do this for a while.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: 17 years after the band recorded its last studio album, Talk Show, the Go Go’s finally convened to cut your 4th album, God Bless the Go-Go’s. What was the mindset going into that album?
Charlotte Caffey: We chose our producers on that record because we definitely wanted to bring out the harder edge sound, the way we really sounded live. That was important to us. We wrote 60 songs for that record. We always have to write a bulk of material to get to what we consider the cream of the crop. Those songs always rise to the top. There are ones that are stronger than other songs on that record but oddly enough, there’s a musical being done called Head Over Heels.
Jeff Whitty who did Avenue Q, which won a Tony award for Best Musical. It had puppets that talked filthy. He’s using our catalog and it’s not driven by our story, which I’m happy about. We gave him every single song from our catalog and he chose seven songs form the last record. So now it’ll breathe life in those songs that people never really heard. That album came out in 2001 and it never received the attention it deserved because of 9/11 and because the record company folded.
Back in 2001 when we were promoting that record, the radio stations didn’t want to know about new Go-Go’s songs; they had no interest in it, which I thought was silly. But I understand because we’re associated with a certain zeitgeist, a certain moment in time. For that album we didn’t want to go back to who we were; we just wanted to write the best songs we could possibly write. I love that record and I love the way it sounds.
We weren’t trying to recreate anything from our past. That said, if I’m on a hike and all of a sudden a Go-Go’s song comes on from our first record, that makes me happy. That first album is so brilliant. Everything about it was perfect.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Is there a Go Go’s song you thought was a sure fire hit which turned out to be a sure fire commercial dud?
Charlotte Caffey: I don’t think we had time to think about that stuff, certainly not with the first record. We just loved what we were doing and as we were playing around L.A., we kept just writing really good songs. There was no way we were thinking of it like that. We thought, “Gosh if we could just sell 100,000 records that would be amazing.”
That was our goal. In light of the success of our first album that kind of thinking was crazy; it’s so naïve and cute. I think maybe on the last record (God Bless the Go-Go’s), we felt like we had some really strong songs but you never know how things are gonna turn out. Sometimes in the initial burst of a band, those songs have their own energy.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Recount a major “Wow!’ moment in your career that puts a giant smile on your face.
Charlotte Caffey: When we were on the Police tour and we got a tour bus we were like, “Okay, we’ve made it.” (laughs) We couldn’t believe we had our own tour bus and were no longer crammed into a van. But I think playing the Hollywood Bowl in ’82 and selling it out was so amazing. It was August 17th, Belinda’s birthday. There are so many amazing moments along the way but that sticks out for me.
Rock Cellar Magazine: The Go-Go’s forged new boundaries in music and were pioneers, how does it feel to know your work inspired new generations?
Charlotte Caffey: There was no thought of any of that when we were creating the first record. It was an amazing moment in time. In Hollywood we had this cool little punk rock scene. Everything was so amazing. I’d go work at the hospital and couldn’t wait to get out so I could go and rehearse and go and write and go and play shows. It was just non-stop inspiration.
We’re in our ‘50s, it’s insane and crazy that people still want to come and see us in droves.
Rock Cellar Magazine: So no more farewell tours?
Charlotte Caffey: No, that was a moment in time. We were gonna do a farewell tour which I thought was really stupid but Jane had a hiking accident and fell down a cliff and shattered her knee. If that wasn’t divine intervention I don’t know what was.
We looked at that as, “Okay, maybe we’re not supposed to break up” so we didn’t. It’s a really gratifying thing to know we’re a household name and the music is ingrained in so many people’s lives. That’s really an incredible feeling.
My wise spiritual mentor has said to me, “Charlotte, every time you go onstage you’re being of service.” And when she said that, I was like, I get that. How I was able to get to that place goes back to 1990. We had broken up for five years and had gotten back together and did that benefit at the Universal Amphitheater. It was my very first sober show. What I experienced that night was watching grown men cry and me sitting there going, “Oh my God!”
I’ve felt everything before but that particular concert helped me truly understand what we bring to people. They leave there elevated and which is kind of a ripple effect. I don’t know how long it lasts but at least there’s something very positive we give out. That’s where I was able to reconcile everything and know, “Wow, this is what I’ve been put on earth to do and I’m gonna do a really good job of it.”
I’m so excited and a happy to be on tour and do all of these things.